César Franck (1822-1890) composed what he considered to be his most important work, the oratorio Les Beatitudes, between 1869 and 1879. This was an unsettling period for France in the wake of the collapse of the Second Empire in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871).
This relatively brief war was particularly brutal for France, leaving a quarter of a million dead and wounded on the losing side. The formation of the new French government was also fraught with tension between the formerly powerful Catholic Church and the new secular Republican regime, which started as provisional, but ended up lasting well into the 20th Century.
This political and social upheaval seems to have inspired the devout Franck at the pinnacle of his career to compose a work contrasting the violence, avarice, and ambition of his time with the virtues of humility, compassion, and justice proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount.
Following a brief prologue, each of the eight Beatitude movements set the scene of the vices and/or longings of this world (represented by the “Terrestrial Chorus”) with the alternative ideals proclaimed by Christ and the “Celestial Chorus.”
- The tenor soloist and chorus introduce the central theme of work: Hope will come to those who now live in fear – excerpt 1
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit
- the tenors and basses of the choir display an unvarnished lust for wealth and power – excerpt 2
- the people are divided between the insatiable desire for riches and the inevitable disillusionment they bring – excerpt 3
- for the first time, the choir takes the role of the “Celestial Chorus” in response to Christ’s pronouncing “Blessed are the poor” – excerpt 4
2. Blessed are the meek
- the opening section suggests an atmosphere of fear and foreboding, as the “Terrestrial Chorus” cowers in the face of war and violence – excerpt 5
- the “Celestial Chorus” is now an antiphonal chorus of the five soloists and the full choir offering comfort and solace to the oppressed – excerpt 6
3. Blessed are they who mourn
- a funeral march of the Terrestrial Chorus introduces a striking theme that will be transfigured throughout the movement – excerpt 7
- the march reaches a shattering climax as the chorus personifies the exiled Israelites of the Hebrew bible – excerpt 8
- in response to Christ’s pronouncement of blessing on those who mourn, the Celestial Chorus now sings the same march theme, though this time as a comforting, lyrical melody in a major key – excerpt 9
4. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice
- in the only movement without the chorus, the tenor soloist sings as a heroic figure seeking justice (this excerpt is from one of the two sections of this work sometimes published and recorded separately in collections of solo arias) – excerpt 10
5. Blessed are the merciful
- parallel to the “greed” chorus of Beatitude 1, the tenors and basses sing a terrifying chorus calling for vengeance and total victory at any cost – excerpt 11
- in response to Christ’s call for mercy, the Celestial Chorus sings a stunningly serene chorus of hope and consolation – excerpt 12
6. Blessed are the pure in heart
- the bass soloist is introduced for the first time, as the “Angel of Death” warning the people heard asking God for favors that they will not be protected from disappointment and death in the end; the sopranos and altos respond in the key of F# major (which Franck said symbolized “cosmic joy,” as it did for Olivier Messiaen decades later) with a simple “Celestial” song of trust in heavenly wisdom over an earthly sense of entitlement – excerpt 13
- the Celestial Chorus sings a luminous passage, again in F# major, in response to Christ’s suggestion that those with unselfish intentions will be fully satisfied in the en excerpt 14
7. Blessed are the peacemakers
- the bass soloist’s initial role of “Angel of Death” is now transformed into “Satan” for the final two movements; the Terrestrial Chorus portrayals of “Tyrants,” “Pagans,” and finally “The Multitudes” culminate in a “call and response” chorus with Satan, who stokes up the crowd with calls for violence and annihilation – excerpt 15
- Christ’s response is at once one of the shortest and one of the most beautiful of his statements of the Beatitudes, enough so that Satan can only respond ,“Ah! That voice! striking terror into my heart! Causing darkness and error to depart!”– excerpt 16
- the concluding Celestial Chorus of this movement is sung by the solo quintet in a passage equal to any in the Romantic operas of the time – excerpt 17
8. Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
- having seen how Christ’s voice of calm was enough to intimidate Satan, the Terrestrial Chorus now sings in opposition to the bass soloist in a passionate plea for justice – excerpt 18
- in the second of two solo arias that have appeared on recital programs, the mezzo soprano soloist voices the sorrow of the “Mater Dolorosa” (‘Mother of Sorrows’ (Mary, mother of Jesus)) lamenting the persecution of her son for righteousness’ sake – excerpt 19
- having been shamed into retreat by Mary, Satan yields a last time to the gentle voice of Christ; no angry confrontation here; instead, Satan is conquered by kindness and mercy – excerpt 20
- this longest movement of the whole work rewards the listener with a sublime “Hosanna” choral finale with a climactic cadence the equal of any late Romantic work before Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony – excerpt 21
Thomas Lloyd and the Bucks County Choral Society will perform this neglected masterwork on Sunday, March 24, 2019 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Doylestown with Symphony in C and soloists Melissa Mino, Misoon Ghim, Dann Coakwell, Randall Scarlatta, and Jason Switzer.
Discounted advance tickets are available at this link:
Recorded excerpts are from the Helmut Rilling recording of the complete work with the Stuttgart Gächinger Kantorei, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gilles Cachemaille, John Cheek, Ingeborg Danz, Reinhard Hagen, Cornelia Kallisch, Keith Lewis, and Diana Montague. Hänssler Classic B002VQ1Z7S, 2000.